Wasps veteran Jimmy Gopperth isn’t quite yet threatening Brad Thorn’s age-defying English Premiership record. The lock was 40 years and 109 days old when he played for Leicester in their 2015 semi-final at Bath. Gopperth, by comparison, will only turn a mere 38 in June, meaning the league’s current oldest player has quite a stretch yet to travel to go into the record books as the English competition’s eldest ever statesman.
He’s doing his best to get there, mind. Gopperth’s old SpongeBob nickname (look at their similar shoulders) may have given way to ‘grandad’ references at Wasps and his gallop as his club’s only ever-present in this season’s Premiership was ended by vertigo ruling him out of consideration last weekend at Exeter, but he is still going incredibly strong and hopes to soon ink the contract that will have him at poised at the starting line for the 2021/22 campaign.
The New Zealander’s career longevity should be a case study for contemporaries in both hemispheres. Four Super Rugby seasons with the Hurricanes and another at the Blues followed by four years with Newcastle, two at Leinster and he is now nearing the end of his sixth campaign with Wasps – in excess of 400 games. It’s quite the total.
What keeps Gopperth going as a rugby-type Benjamin Button, the film character whose body became younger the older he grew in years? Mental freshness, it seems, is the elixir to eternal rugby youth – plus an unusual chance inheritance last winter from the house-moving Brad Shields.
“You have got to keep in good shape,” said Gopperth to RugbyPass, sounding as enthusiastic as ever about his sport. “I have always been a hard trainer, have never cut corners and always make sure I do the best I can do every day.
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“A big help this year actually is I have gone away from the ice baths. Brad Shields was moving house and he couldn’t take a spa pool to his new house. I was, ‘I’ll take it’. That has been the best thing ever. I sit in the spa pool every day after training and that heat on my muscles and my joints has made me feel a million dollars. That has been a great investment.
“Also a big thing for me – and I have done this right throughout my whole career – is I have things outside rugby. In New Zealand especially, and at Newcastle and Leinster as well, I was always surfing and it just takes my mind off rugby for whatever hours I’m surfing.
“These days golf is my big passion off the rugby field and I don’t think about rugby at all. That mental refresh, just having something to think about outside of rugby, is invaluable. When I was young I used to think rugby 24/7 – most young boys do. But that mental freshness I get from competing in a different sport outside of rugby really helps me when I come to training.
“I love the game, my body still feels really good and I don’t want to go to a nine-to-five yet. I’d much rather wake up in the morning a little bit sore, come into work and run around outside than sit in an office. That drives me more than ever. Half my mates who have already retired say, ‘Don’t retire, don’t retire. Do as much as you can because it’s hard on the other side’.
“I’m sorting some things out (contract-wise). I’m not putting the coaching hat on just yet. I have got a few years left yet in my playing career, for sure. The way I’m feeling now I’m really keen to keep playing so we’ll just crack on with that.”
Having spent the past twelve years in the UK and Ireland, it would be easy to forget that Gopperth enjoyed a formative farming upbringing in New Zealand that steeled him for a Super Rugby breakthrough when that tournament was in its early noughties heyday, playing to packed galleries with teams jammed full of household names in the pre-social media era.
Gopperth doesn’t need much prompting when reeling in the years and in a blink, we are transported to Pihama, the village on the Taranaki coast where he was reared on a dairy farm and developed his famed kicking prowess with a set of goalposts erected in the cow-field nearest the family house.
“My old man built some goalposts and I used to smash them over. I spent hours and hours out there. I just always loved kicking, loved goal-kicking, and when I was around 11, 12 I was already getting it from the sideline on an adult’s pitch. I used to play barefoot, used to do it all the time, and I just loved it. I used to watch Grant Fox as a youngster. He was on the All Blacks team and he was just an amazing kicker. I got hooked on watching him and I have been able to take that skill into being a real positive skill set of mine.
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“I don’t know (if the posts are still up on the farm), I don’t think they are. I haven’t been back for a long time but I think they have gone down, to be honest. The cows always used to rub up against them when they were in the paddock next to the house, so we were always fixing them. They might have been bulldozed down by the cows… but if I move home that is 100 per cent what I will be doing, putting up posts in the backyard for sure.
“Pretty much when I could walk I was playing rugby. I remember when the All Blacks were on tour and I’d be really young, waking up at four in the morning with my dad to watch the Test matches and then going down to help milk the cows afterwards.
“That was what Kiwi boys did and I always had a dream of being a professional player. It was probably more something when I was 15 when things started happening and people were in my ear that you have got something that you can work with, your ability could go somewhere if you put the hard work in and sacrifice a few things.
“That is probably when I knuckled down and concentrated on getting better and better. Luckily, I got to play for New Zealand schoolboys and had a great tour to England, Scotland, Wales and France and that was just amazing. Then I got picked up for Wellington and it kept me rolling.”
The surname of a famed All Blacks skipper illustrates how long a career Gopperth has since enjoyed. Tana Umaga was the New Zealand captain when Gopperth first arrived on the scene in Wellington and now all these years later in Coventry, Umaga’s 22-year-old nephew Jacob is a teammate at Wasps. It’s kind of crazy that it has turned out like that.
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“I have seen a lot of players over the years, been very fortunate to play with some of the greats. I still remember playing for Wellington. I made my debut in 2002 but that was just a pre-season game. Most of the big stars weren’t playing but when I properly made the team in 2003 I remember walking into the changing room and Jonah Lomu was there, Christian Cullen was there, Tana, Jerry (Collins), all the big dogs.
“It was some of the biggest rugby seen in New Zealand with the crowds as well. We used to have packed stadiums every single match. It was just amazing. With Tana, I had long years playing with him and now with Jacob coming through, it’s pretty special to see the development and I have been very fortunate for so long.”
What especially elongated Gopperth’s career was the cold and clinical decision to jack in his dreams of making it with the All Blacks and taking up an offer in England in 2009. It was life-affirming in the sense that he is still going strong in a Premiership where his debut was a 9-all draw at the long lamented Leeds.
“I had dreamed of playing for the All Blacks as every kid does but I looked at the pecking order and it was just endless with quality tens. Even if there are massive injuries you are probably still down in the pecking order, so I thought why not go over?
“Our daughter had just been born and the first goal was just to come over for a couple of years and see how it goes. Hopefully, you can develop your game and come back to push yourself to make the All Blacks. But when I came over here I just really enjoyed it.
? @jimmygopps with your late-night set…
Ft. Nirvana, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Kygo
— Wasps Rugby (@WaspsRugby) February 23, 2021
“There was way less pressure than New Zealand with the media etc and I just fell in love with the people in Newcastle and the endless travel you can do. Jump on a plane for 45 minutes, an hour, and you are in a different country. In New Zealand, you have got to travel a long way to get to Australia or the Cook Islands or wherever. The opportunity to explore the world was pretty awesome and thankfully I have had those opportunities up here.
“I have been fortunate the way I have fitted into the different environments. When you thrive in those environments and you put your best foot forward and play okay, you get a lot of interest from groups around and when people say, ‘We want you, we’d really like you here’, it does make you feel good about yourself and makes you want to work harder to achieve things.”
In his time, Gopperth has noticed the standard of play improve. “From when I was in Newcastle in 2009 to where I am now I have seen a massive shift in the ability, especially in the front five in the skill set and that is being driven from all the coaches and all the clubs the way you play.
“It has really come on. Obviously, the All Blacks leading the way throughout the world helps that as well. Everyone wants to sort of be like that and that just makes the game a lot faster, a lot more skilful. If we watched a game from 2009 and watched a game in 2021 we would all agree that the skill set, the awareness of the game, the understanding of the game has really blossomed and for the better.”
What about the kicking, Jimmy, an aspect of play that is often negatively viewed? “You have to have kicking in the game,” he insisted. “It’s a big part of the game. It’s applying pressure, it’s attacking kicks, you have got your dropkicks for points or restarts and your goal-kicks. Like if you didn’t have kicking then you wouldn’t see as much open rugby because one team will have the ball and just bash away…
— jimmy gopperth (@jimmygopps) April 5, 2021
“What kicking does is it actually breaks the game up and that is when we see these exciting runners with the ball in hand creating chaos with defences. Kicking is a massive part of the game. It’s all on accuracy as well and planning. You can see if a team hasn’t got a plan and is just kicking aimlessly. Spectators don’t like it and players don’t like it either, so every team has a plan and the majority of those plans are either to regain the ball and apply pressure or break the game up so you can bring your runners more into the game.”
Gopperth’s buzzer-beating kicking memories are vivid. “I’d the famous one with the Hurricanes against the Waratahs in 2006 from about 50 metres to get to the Super Rugby final, a drop goal against the Stormers to win (in 2005) and the big one over here was the Exeter quarter-final to win that game. That was awesome. I love those pressure kicks. As kickers, we train every day for those moments.
“The big one that hurt me was the drop goal for Leinster in 2015, it just literally shaved the upright (in Marseille against Toulon in the European semis). A couple of more millimetres and we win that game. That is probably my biggest one that I always look back on. I’m still driven to win that (European) competition and if I had my time again, I would love to take that one (kick) back.”
Just three weeks ago, Wasps suffered a buzzer-beater themselves, Clermont striking for a converted try to agonisingly knock Gopperth and co out of Europe. Painful losses have been the story of the English club’s season. “We are very disappointed in our results. There has been a lot of good stuff but just in patches.
“There is a lot of talent here, there is a good set of coaches, everyone in the environment is positive and knows what we are trying to achieve and the steps we need to take,” said Gopperth, reflecting on a campaign where he received a lot of online love for telling a referee at Bristol not to bother going to TMO in March to review a Bears play and just award the try instead.
— Jimmy Gopperth Kicking Academy (@jimmygkicking) March 8, 2021
“I was under the ball trying to hold it up and I felt it go right between my hands. I couldn’t get under it and it was a try. It was more out of frustration and I was ‘they are going to pick it up on the TMO anyway’. I was, ‘What’s the point? It’s a try. Let’s save five minutes and let’s get back down there and get back in the game’. That was my mindset. Looking back at it I don’t think they actually had a camera angle so they probably wouldn’t have given it. The coaches weren’t too happy about it, but it was just one of those things. It was a try and a try is a try.”
It’s an honesty that should serve his post-playing career well. He has already been earning some coaching stripes. “I coach at local club Nuneaton Old Edwardians, national seven. A great bunch, just a brilliant grassroots club. I have been there for the last four years and just love seeing the improvement in them.”
There are also a number of ambassadorships, including Egmont Honey, as well as his own kicking academy. But it will be intriguing to see how the relaunch of the Simpkin kicking tee will go. George Simpkin, the ex-Fiji World Cup coach, died with cancer last year but he had reached out to Gopperth before his death with a special request.
“George rang me up just before he passed away. The Simpkin was the first kicking tee in the world to be made and it has won World Cups, all the greats have used it and I’m the only one that still uses it as he didn’t remanufacture it from 2010. He wanted me to remake it in my name, which is pretty special of him. I have been working pretty hard and hopefully will get the samples soon, get it out and let everyone enjoy the great kicking tee I have been using for years.
“Apart from it being yellow it’s just the perfect height for kicking, it just holds the ball in any placement that you want, a bit tilted over, upright, it’s just a really good solid base to make it sure. When you are a goal-kicker you don’t want to think about your ball moving at all so the biggest thing is that trust. Whenever you put the ball on the tee it is not going to move and it just gives a great height to get that perfect connection.”
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